Taking the mask off

My autism diagnosis is still a really new thing for me, but I’ve been feeling more and more over the last couple of weeks that I wanted to tell people about it. One reason is because there are quite probably tens of thousands of people like me, who have no clue that they’re autistic, and the only way that is going to change is by amplifying autistic voices and providing an alternative to the ‘awkward geeky guy’ stereotype that most people associate with the word ‘autism’.

The other reason though, I think, is because I feel this real need to live my new life as authentically as possible. My life since diagnosis has been a series of lightbulb moment – sudden realisations that explain so many different aspects of my past. I do feel like a different person. I feel calmer, lighter, more aware of myself. I’m enjoying getting to know the person under the many layers of masking that have built up over the last 38 years.

The strange thing is, I always knew I was masking – I just didn’t call it that. I always knew there was an ‘external’ me that was presented to the outside world, and an ‘internal’ me that was reserved pretty much entirely for my family. Close friends would sometimes get a bit of the real me, but the vast majority had to make do with the carefully constructed external mask. For quite a number of years the mask even had a different name, as I continued to work under my maiden name of Cat Kelly. In my head it made a nice distinction between the me who was out and about meeting people, doing things, and generally being busy, and the me who liked nothing better than curling up under my duvet and not leaving the house. In some ways it did make it easier to go to work – I could ‘put on’ Cat Kelly, and just get on with it. Cat Kelly was good with people. However, even before I was consciously aware of the masking I was doing, I used to get frustrated that other people couldn’t tell when Cat Kelly got back in the box and I was just me again. If I was working at a festival I was quite happy to chat to people after my workshops, or after my gigs, when I still had Cat Kelly on – but then someone would spot me in the queue for potato wedges and want to chat to me about something, and, although I did my best to be polite, I would be inwardly cringing at my awkwardness, and baffled as to how they couldn’t see that I wasn’t available for talking right now, because Cat Kelly had gone away and Cat McGill does not like small talk. (I mean, obviously I do understand that we look pretty similar from the outside.)

The penny dropped a few months ago, when I had started to suspect I was autistic. I decided that I wasn’t going to mask any more, and did a complete revamp of my professional life so that everything was in my new name. (I did have to have the conversation a few times about how, yes, I had got married, but no actually not that recently, in fact it’s been about five years now.)

However. Taking the mask off is quite a scary thing. I wrote in my last post about how I feel that I haven’t quite done what I ought to have done in my career, and today I’ve been wondering whether part of that is down to the masking. I’ve been writing regularly for about five years now, but it’s been scattered all over the place, hidden under various pseudonyms, on three or four different blogs. I’m quite happy to stand up in front of hundreds of people and teach them a song, but if they’re just there to hear me sing – even my Cat Kelly mask isn’t quite thick enough to cope with that. My whole life was about being in the background, putting other people first, making other people feel good, or look good, achieve something. And I was in the background, safe, and yet frustrated. Both wanting to be seen, and terrified of being seen.

What I have realised over the last few years, but even more so over the last few weeks, is that people do like to read my writing. I write in a way that people can relate to, and a lot of people find it helpful. I like that, because I do like to be helpful, and the process of writing it helps me too, so it’s a win-win really. Today I decided to bring all my different writing together in one place. I’ll be honest, I nearly set up a new website for it. But 2019 is my year for streamlining my work, and living more authentically, so I decided to put it all here, in one place, as me. 

As I have taken a break from trying to please all of the people all of the time I’ve had a chance to reflect on what I actually want to spend my life doing, what I want to give my time to, and what interests and excites me, and I really want to use this knowledge to get some focus into my professional life. Bringing together all my various strands of thought in one place has given me some new insights in to what connects them all. If I had to choose one word to summarise it all, it would be relationships. (Which is a little ironic, coming from the social-phobic autistic over here.) In some ways, it’s the autism that has nurtured this fascination of what makes people tick; it’s not something I instinctively understand, and for as long as I can remember I’ve been absolutely fascinated by it. A lot of my work is about using music to connect, build relationships, and bring people together. My first full-length book is about how to build a relationship with a child who’s been traumatised by adoption. My writing on autism explores my relationship with myself.

It is nerve-wracking, thinking of having this all together, in one place, because there’s nothing to hide behind any more. It feels a bit strange that people who sing in my choirs might read this post, and realise that the Cat McGill who stands up in front of them every week acting like a wally to make them laugh is the same Cat McGill who is sometimes so wracked with social anxiety that I’m unable to leave the house. (In fact, in a very real sense, music provides a safe and structured way for me to connect with people.) I admit, I am nervous about revealing this much of myself, but it’s not because I don’t want anyone to know, and it’s not because I think people will judge me. Maybe it’s actually because I think they’ll probably say nice things, and I never quite know how to handle that. It means so much to me when people like what I do, but I find that quite difficult to express.*

So perhaps we should make an agreement. If you’ve read this, and you like it, and you want to tell me about it, then maybe email me? Or tweet me, leave a comment, whatever suits you best. And if you see me in person and want to tell me then maybe limit it to a couple of words and a hug. I do like hugs.

*Having said that, if you have a specific question, then ask away, as I can talk for hours once I know what you are interested in hearing about..!